Tag Archives: contributed articlles

Media mistakes 4: house style and advertorials

I edit a couple of publications, one regularly (Professional Outsourcing Magazine) and I’m one of a group of people editing supplements for the New Statesman. Sometimes we have external contributions from people, occasionally in the form of “advertorials” in the New Statesman (although we don’t carry those in Professional Outsourcing).

I enjoy both positions and have edited sponsored supplements for other publications, too. If I could change one thing about corporate contributors to either of them then it would be the view that says we will adopt the writer’s house style every time. We won’t.

Here’s an example. Someone was writing a piece for the one of my magazines a while ago and said they wanted their picture to appear by it. Now, unless you’re a regular staffer on the New Statesman (in which case you might well have a picture byline in the main magazine), that’s just not something the magazine does.

The writer’s logic was that he/she was paying to take part in an advertorial and should therefore be able to dictate terms. This isn’t actually how it works. If you’re writing for an established publication it will have its own style, and will adjust your copy to accommodate it. This might be as simple as changing every reference to the number “2” to “two”, or putting job titles in lower case (I’ve actually had complaints from people for not putting their job in capitals before now). But the house style is going to stay – it’s got our brand on it, and the Guardian, Times, Professional Outsourcing or whoever you’re writing for will want to stay consistent.

Publishing rules count

The other matter on which we’ll be very strict is libel. Even if you’re taking part in an advertorial, we won’t let you slate your competition or – as one company once tried to do in a magazine I won’t name – accuse a government of intimidation without rock solid evidence.

We’ll have been trained in the laws of libel and will know what you can and can’t say. Unless there is proof, the fact that something is true may not be an actual defence in court because the perpetrator will be regarded as innocent until proven guilty. And saying – as happened with one client – “We’re paying X amount so you’ve got to publish what we say” – isn’t going to cut it. We’d rather send the money back than compromise our publication.

None of this means you won’t get to state your case. You’ll simply be bound by the same ethics and legislation that controls the rest of the journalistic world. Generally these are there for a very good reason, such as protecting the genuinely innocent.

So if you’re going to get involved in advertorials here are some general guidelines:

  • It’s not an advert so you can’t just put in any old thing. Excessive mention of your brand, for example, will be frowned upon.
  • The magazine, newspaper or website may want to put its own house style into your item. This is a good thing as it will make the whole enterprise seem more professional and your article is more likely to be taken seriously.
  • Try to make a point and offer thought leadership rather than “we’ve got this new product or service”. You want people to read this rather than write it off as an advert.
  • Try to understand that the editorial team doesn’t always welcome the imposition of advertorial articles from the commercial side. It’s one of those professional tensions that exists in publishing – accept it, respect that the journalists to whom you speak might not have read every word of every advertorial and you should get on just fine…

Do you need help writing for or talking to the press? I can help – email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Five tips on writing

Do you have trouble with your corporate writing style? It’s what I do for a living but even then I have potential clients who don’t like my style. A lot of it is a matter of taste, but there are some rules that will help.

Last week I spent a very pleasant day coaching a client on case studies. Here are some of the tips he needed – and if you’d like a similar one to one coaching session in London do get in touch by clicking here and I’d be pleased to help.

  • Be brief. Short sentences are good. It’s often a good idea to put a slightly longer one in the middle to vary the tone otherwise it becomes monotonous. But mostly, short is good.
  • Start with the main clause, the main point of your story. Let the subordinate clause – the section of a sentence that is less important than the rest – be subordinate. So sentences or stories that start “In a move designed to shake up the opposition, David Cameron has…” aren’t great. Just tell me what he’s done and spend less time clearing your throat.
  • Be active. Active and passive is a distinction that isn’t always clear to everybody; to put it another way, stick to a structure of subject, verb, object. “The cat sat on the mat” is clearer than “The mat was sat on by the cat” in which we go passive.
  • Write for your audience rather than your company. A few years ago someone asked me for feedback on their website. The first paragraph was all about how they’d decided to move from being a sole trader to being a limited company. That might well have been a superb idea but why should the customer care? Tell the reader something that concerns them, not something that concerns you.
  • Always read things out loud. The writer Graham Greene once said he always did this and if it sounded bad, it was bad, no matter how grammatically correct it might look on the page. This is more important than ever now in a word processor-led era in which we write, rewrite and add bits all the time so a sentence can be cobbled together over days. How many times have you accidentally left an unnecessary word from a previous draft in a document?

If you say you’ll write, write!

This is an odd one. I edit a couple of publications and have had this happen to me twice over the last couple of months. It’s from corporate writers doing it as part of what they do for a living rather than professional journalists, so I can kind of understand where they’re coming from, but…basically…if you’ve agreed to write something for me, please write it. Or say you’re not doing so.

Exhibit 1: a professor agrees to write something for a supplement I’m editing. No names, no pack drill. He gets it to me on time and it’s well written.

And he tells me the name of his co-writer so I can credit them properly.

Co-writer? It was a good piece so I wouldn’t have minded. However, having briefed the original writer as to what I was after and how the supplement would work, it was peculiar to find a complete stranger creeping into the mix somehow.

I’ve got this friend who can write

Even odder was the contact on another publication who had a specialism in a particular area in which we were interested. So I approached him to write something and he readily agreed.

He submitted early. It was a good piece. We had a photo and a bio of him so I was ready to go.

Then at the last minute I checked whether his bio was still up to date. And thank goodness I did so, because he then told me a colleague and contact – from a very reputable source – had in fact written the piece.

So there was a last minute scramble to get the right pictures in place, source a bio for the actual writers and I’m still not certain why the original writer either thought it was OK to substitute someone else without mentioning it or why he felt he had to be the middle person sending emails back and forth as if he were the writer.

Editors aren’t all control freaks. However, they do like a fighting chance of being aware of what’s going on in a publication someone is paying them to assemble. So if you or a client are ever contributing to a magazine or website, throw us a bone – tell us if you’re having it written by someone else!

Do you need help with corporate writing or engagement with the press? I can help – give me a call on 07973 278780 or fill in the form below.

Trust the editor to do the job: five unhelpful behaviours

I edit a few publications, mostly supplements for the New Statesman (here’s a recent example) and Professional Outsourcing Magazine. Something they share in common is the use of external contributors, whether these might be government ministers, academics, industry analysts.

One thing a handful of them share in common is, how can I put this: excessive pride in their work. I’m in favour of this to the extent of doing a good job, but it can be extreme. Here are some examples of behaviours that can backfire when a contributor thinks he or she is helping:

  • Asking to see the laid-out PDF of an article. This is fair enough until you start asking to change the headline (we’ll have worked on that, it will be the right length to fit the space and it might be part of a theme for the issue), insist that a job title should have a capital letter (I’d refer you to my previous piece on house style) and soforth. Also asking to see the PDF after it’s all gone to print. This is baffling in the extreme – why would you need to? We’re not putting any more changes in.
  • Insisting that your illustrations are the only ones that will work. If you want to send charts in to support your arguments, fine, but the text should stand up by itself in case they become separated in the production process (or if there just isn’t room). Oh, and if there’s a particular chart you don’t want to see in print, don’t send it. Seriously, someone did this to me once.
  • Assuming your English is better than mine. OK, there’s a 50/50 chance it may be, but guess who’s editor and therefore whose crummy standards are going to apply throughout the magazine? That’s right.
  • Assume your length is going to work and we’ll work around it. I’ve made the point about article lengths before but it’s worth repeating. We will have allocated space for everything that’s coming in and if you’re two pages short that can only mean you’re unconsciously assuming the entire publication can be redesigned around you. As editor even I’m not that important – nobody is. Please write to the agreed length and if there’s a reason you can’t, give us plenty of notice.
  • Overall, fail to understand that anyone else is doing this as anything other than a hobby. Contributors sometimes have a picture they’d like illustrating their piece – this is great, I’ll send it to the designer who will try to find something similar. Only then they send a further note and say they’ve found someone else owns the image (we know, it’s the first thing we’d check). So they send another. And are surprised when we refuse to commit to a particular image (we may not have an agreement with the picture library in question, for a start). Guys, we produce magazines for a living and have experience to fall back on when we need to judge what’s going to look right. We won’t always get it right but it’s a good starting point. We also know whether there’s a remarkably similar image illustrating the article next to yours.

That said, the vast majority of the contributors with whom I work are an absolute pleasure. The odd thing is that the higher up the food chain you go, the easier-going they tend to be. Curiously enough the two easiest ever, who made a couple of calls to me to check the angle and wrote to length and on time, were a former attorney general and a senior Cabinet Minister.

The troublesome ones, on the other hand, tell me they’re busy.

Do you need help engaging with the press? I can help – email me by clicking here, fill in the form below or call me on +44 (0) 7973 278780

Writing: When the editor says 1000 words, they mean it

In the last 12 months I’ve had two corporate contributors writing for supplements who’ve done very peculiar things in terms of word length. At least, they were peculiar to me as a journalist. Let’s see what you think.

Essentially I asked one of them to write something and they readily agreed. They wanted to publicise their business – they were consultants or analysts rather than full-time journalists – and they had some excellent ideas on content. So this was all good. They asked what sort of length they should write and I said, 2000 words. I said I’d need it within three weeks.

Four weeks later they asked what the deadline was. I extended it a little for them (always, always lie about the deadline to a first-timer).

In week five they sent the article. 700 words. I queried this; they told me that they’d assumed 2000 words was a “guideline length” and no, they weren’t going to write any more. We found a plan B and I published that instead.

The second incident was similar except the guy’s timing wasn’t a problem. He accepted a commission for 1500 words and produced just under half that. His reasoning was that he thought 1500 words was the absolute maximum. He hadn’t anticipated the next steps.

The process

So here’s how a magazine – and these were both articles for a hard copy, paper magazine – works.

The editor lines up his or her contributors. Once they’re all agreeable, he or she makes a basic map of the issue, usually on a spreadsheet, called a flatplan. This is a really basic diagram in which every cell represents a page – you put the ads in and you know where everything is supposed to be. Easy. Here’s a real life example:

The magazine I edit happens to have around 500 words per page. So when I asked for 2000 words I was thinking of four pages of text, add a full-page picture and a couple of half-page illustrations and you have a six-page feature. Faced with six pages to fill there isn’t much you can do with only 700 words and no, nobody’s going to pad it out with that many pictures. The problem is that the writer’s mind doesn’t always work in the same way as that of the editor.

If you’re writing something on a subject about which you care, I get that the content is going to be more important to you than anything. Editing, however, is about polishing the content of course but also about logistics. You have to fill the magazine and get it out there. Length and deadline become very important indeed. “You can always edit” I’ve been told in the past. Yes, but editing isn’t going to double the length of an article. If you agree to contribute to a publication you need to understand how it works and its structure.

All of the writers’ issues above could have been overcome if the writers had considered for a moment that they were fitting into something rather than writing their own blog (at the moment, obviously, I’m writing this blog and I don’t much mind about the length). Fatally, probably unconsciously, they assumed an editor would structure an entire magazine using their content as the starting point and fitting everything around them.

Ain’t going to happen. We accommodated the last article because it was very good indeed. The first we binned, and the contributor is going to have to perform a miracle if I’m going to consider using them again.

I spent a pleasant day last week training writers at the Henshall Centre and in a couple of weeks I’m training a private client on writing for business. Do you need help contributing to publications for your business? Email me by clicking here and we’ll talk.

Magazines: what’s the deal?

I edit a magazine, Professional Outsourcing. I also edit, from time to time, supplements for the New Statesman. These share something in common: we very frequently use contributions from people whose day job isn’t journalism. And I’m guilty of forgetting, from time to time, that not everybody is going to know the “rules”. So in case you or a client are ever in that position, here are some thoughts based on mistakes I’ve seen people making.

  • A magazine is probably not a professional document. There are exceptions. The Lancet, Hansard, no doubt others are, but most magazines are going to be written with consumers in mind. Even if they’re intended for a professional audience the editor will anticipate that they’re going to be read in the lunch break, or on the commute. So if you’re writing for a magazine, remember to relax the language a little – and if someone is writing a piece on your behalf, don’t be at all surprised if it doesn’t look like something from your internal knowledge base. (Side note: this applies to any written quotes you might supply – I’ve agreed to accept written quotes before and been faced with a 700-word screed for a 1000 word article – nobody is going to use a quote that long!)
  • A magazine isn’t an extension of your marketing department. This means an editor will take what you’ve written and manipulate it to serve the readers best. This is in everybody’s interests but it does mean that the editor might well tone down some of the hype in your piece, if you’ve put any in. If you’ve written well and authoritatively, this won’t matter, the article will still serve you well.
  • A related point is that editors are aware they’re working in a visual medium but they may not have a good visual sense. I don’t believe mine is particularly strong and I’m pleased to have the backing of a superb designer, Leon Parks, for both the outsourcing mag and the NS (plus a proofreader, Louise Bolotin, who is better at micro-editing than I am). One result of this is that we tend to regard the written side of an article as entirely separate from the illustrations – so if you had a particular slide, or graph, you believed was central to your piece, do draw it to our attention. If the article stands up in its own right – and a well-written article will – we’re likely to leave the visuals in the hands of the designers, whose job is to make it as arresting as possible. This doesn’t always chime with the writer’s intention.
  • Be prepared for us to edit. I’ve had two incidents that clash with this idea recently; on one occasion a writer took it badly that a chart had vanished (see above). The other was when a client for a sponsored supplement of a magazine did most of the commissioning himself. I’ve no doubt he was trying to save me time – but that couple of weeks when you don’t know what’s coming in and haven’t seen the brief (hello, I’m supposed to be editing this!) can be pretty nerve-wracking.
  • Finally, a deadline’s a deadline and an agreed length is an agreed length. If you can’t commit to delivering 2000 words within three weeks, don’t commit at all, that’s not a problem. Whatever you do, don’t deliver 700 words after four weeks and assume that will be OK. I’ve actually had this happen and the writer didn’t see a problem (note: you can edit down but rarely up – or at least not to that extent).

Do you need help writing for the press or engaging with us in interviews? Drop me a note by clicking here or fill in the form below and we’ll talk.